When he was directing a movie based on Shane Maloney’s novel ‘Stiff,’ in 2004, John kept a diary.
‘STIFF’ – THE MOVIE. DIRECTOR’S DIARY.
Sometime in 2002, it was decided to make a pair of movies based on Shane Maloney’s first two novels; ‘Stiff’ and ‘The Brush Off’. The arrangement was that Sam would direct one of these films and I would direct the other. Sam selected ‘The Brush Off’, which is set in the art world. ‘Stiff’, the one I’m directing, will be made first. Next slide please.
The central character in the novels, Murray Whelan, is a natural for film and television. He is a slightly shambolic middle-range political advisor with a healthy scepticism, a gift for pressing on regardless and an interest in attractive women with nice personalities. His boss, the demanding Angelo Agnelli MP, is a government Minister whose smooth administration is unhorsed in each story, by the sudden appearance of a dead body. Detective genre without the detective.
David Wenham likes the novels and will play Murray. In terms of confidence-building, this is up there with the invention of the wheel. I haven’t met David before but have observed his career with admiration and we are certainly paid more attention in restaurants than has hitherto been my personal experience. In script discussions David is astute, generous and relaxed. His suggestions are excellent. He thinks, for example, that instead of a briefcase, Murray should carry his stuff around in a plastic bag because he’s that kind of guy and David says he will make this look completely natural. When asked why he is so confident about this, David says because he carries all his own stuff around in a plastic bag. David’s instinct in such matters will turn out to be a matter of some significance. Later, during filming, when dangerous things happen to Murray, David will seldom use a stand-in. Once he has got Murray right, David will back himself in.
A full cast read-through gives the performers and the crew their only chance to see the whole story. After this, the filming process is fragmentary. The story is scheduled and shot in a completely different order. I enjoy our read-through and David hides the comedy so well he looks as if he’s being funny by accident.
Because of the relatively low budget the movie must be shot in 20 days (a normal shoot here would be about 2 months and in the US movies are known to take hundreds of years to shoot), so we will need to box exceeding clever. At one stage of the movie, Murray Whelan’s car must be driven off the road at high speed at night in heavy rain and dropped in a lake. The art director, Chris Kennedy, who can process his own weight in information every four seconds, gets a piece of paper and draws the sequence: driving rain, oncoming vehicle, lights, pumping brakes, car skids off road, turns upside down, car crashes into water. ‘Excellent’ I say. ‘Is all that possible?’ ‘Yes. Should be’ says Chris. ‘Where will we be able to shoot all that?’ I ask. ‘No idea’, he grins, giving me a copy of his drawings. Laszlo Baranyai, who will shoot ‘Stiff,’ is another who can think fast and deep at the same time. He and I go through the script and discuss the feeling we need from each scene and where the rhythm is in the story. There’s not much Laszlo and Chris don’t know about where we’re going and I make a mental note to maintain eye contact with both of them at all times.
7am, we’re filming at the old Four and Twenty Pie factory next to the railway line in Kensington and Laszlo is beaming from a crane because it is raining. Much of the film takes place in heavy rain and this is a handy start. By mid-morning we are upstairs in an industrial office with David and actors Susie Dee and Denis Moore. I’m crouched in a low scrum in a room about the size of a stamp, watching ‘the split’, which is a little video screen showing what the camera is seeing. At one stage David as Murray picks the phone up, does something he doesn’t like, stops, puts the phone down, picks it up again with his hand and head in exactly the same position, does something he does like and continues with the scene. This not only saves us the trouble of starting again but indicates that David can concentrate on his performance in the context of an editing process which won’t occur for a month. The scrum freezes. We look at each other. Did we just hear him do that? The continuity was perfect. What is this? There is a very good feeling in the room.
After two days at the factory, Laszlo and the crew have lit and shot 49 set-ups and we’ve completed nearly 12 minutes of finished screen-time, which as Damon Runyon would say, is by no means hay. My brilliant first assistant, Annie Maver, has a cascading, peeling laugh which lifts and builds and then reaches a cruising height and ultimately decks the halls with boughs of holly. People who have never previously encountered this machine of delight, normally need a couple of days to acclimatise. This too, is going well.
We’re in a restaurant in Federation Square, shooting scenes with Murray and Agnelli, including their crucial early meeting and the final scene in the picture. While we’re here, in order to help suggest Agnelli’s rise through the ALP, Barry Jones, John Button and Joan Kirner have generously agreed to appear in some scenes with the excellent Mick Molloy, whose Agnelli slips straight into gear.
This morning David has to be chased up a laneway by a car and hurl himself into a large pile of rubbish before belting back to another location and peeling off several pages of fairly subtle dialogue with Sam and Mick in a room whose temperature would ripen tomatoes at 60 paces. David does the running himself of course, avoids the speeding car and hurls himself into a vast pile of rubbish to applause on all sides. Back in the office location the difference between the light levels outside and those in the room require black film material to be put on the windows. We then put a dozen people in the small room and begin to rehearse. It is by now very hot and lesser talents would melt. David, Sam and Mick, however, are superb and these scenes will be among the strongest in the film.
Today is Deb Kennedy’s first day and it’s good to see her. We were married in ‘Death in Brunswick’ and although she’s one of the best actors in the country she’s probably best known for squirting the words ‘not happy Jan’ through a small hole at the bottom of a window. Her voice is rich and her eyes can fill with enormous patience and deep disdain at the same time. We also spend some time in the Turkish Welfare Centre, which Chris Kennedy and his team have constructed inside a voluminous hall and where we are greatly helped by the actor Ramez Tabit, who lights up on camera and becomes the soul of the place.
On day 7 we shoot a scene in which a man called Memo confesses to a murder. George Patrakis, who plays Memo, does it beautifully. As we leave, Annie and I are invited into the camera truck, whose name is Pearl. Laszlo and Miranda solemnly draw out two cardboard boxes bearing the names of film stock manufacturers; one is marked Kodak, one Eastman. The Kodak box contains red wine, the Eastman white. As we sitting there drinking Kodak after a good first week, I ask Laszlo about the big accident sequence. He tells me not to worry about it. Chris’s drawings are right. It won’t be easy and people will say it is impossible, he says, but it will all come together. We have some more Kodak.
Trouble at mill. We’re filming above the roof of Murray’s house when the remote focus breaks down. This slows us and will require a rescheduling of the shots we’ve lost. We can’t really afford this and must make time by shooting other scenes faster. Inside the house, there are about four thousand of us in three rooms. This is actor Darren Casey’s first day. He has one scene. He is quite worried. He arrives, gets it right first time and leaves.
Over lunch there is a meeting about getting the roof to come off Murray’s house in post-production by shooting the preceding scene in a particular way and then taking the shots into a computer environment and using animatronics. I nod a fair bit and maintain eye contact with Laszlo and Chris. They seem happy so I relax and have a cup of tea with the gaffer, Darryl, who has subjected his best boy, the noble Anthony, to continuous low-level flak over the performance of the All Blacks in the World Cup. The Wallabies/All Blacks semi-final is on this weekend. Ant and I look forward to it. Bring it on. Let Darryl’s humiliation begin.
The result of the rugby is not important. It is a childish game which has never really interested me. More pressingly, as we are getting the shot of the house that is required in order to do the computer whizzbangery with the roof, an enormous storm hits and we rethink the afternoon so we can use the rain. It’s always messy to change the schedule on the run and I’m sure there are problems but no-one complains and what we get is very good indeed, with David inventing his dialogue as he goes. We may discover something David can’t do but it hasn’t looked like happening yet.
On day 15 we shoot Darren’s first scenes in the office. He has five of them. He is quite worried. He arrives, gets them all right first time and leaves. Deborah and David agree to shoot three scenes in one great sweeping progress featuring three separate arguments and using the full length of the office. They eat it alive and it is not until the following day we learn there is a hair in the gate. This means a strand of hair has been caught in the camera as we were filming. The footage is unusable and we must re-shoot it.
In the afternoon we’re in a hotel in Clifton Hill shooting a Labor Party Branch Meeting, a Beckett scene, rich in boredom. Chris has hung a large yellow tarp up behind the stage with ‘True Believers Karaoke Night’ on it in red, David sits on the stage and Laszlo has put the camera down low to David’s right, looking up. It’s a beautiful shot and I wander over from the split and tell Laszlo it looks great. ‘When I was a young cameraman in Budapest’, he tells me, ‘that is how you had to shoot the Russian leaders. It makes them look big, strong, important.’ I compliment David on his playing of the scene and his eyes soften: ‘My father was a friend of Fred Daly’ he says. ‘I grew up licking envelopes in Fred Daly’s electoral office. I’ve been to meetings like this since I was a kid’.
We finish early today so David can go the AFI Awards where he is the red-hot favourite to be named best actor for his remarkable performance in ‘Getting Square’. Like many of us in the industry, David is concerned about the likely effects of the amusingly named ‘Free Trade Agreement’. I flick the tellie on when I get home and see him mention this in a gracious acceptance speech.
The following morning we re-shoot the ‘hair in the gate’ shot. One of the actors asks if he can have his photo taken with David. ‘I’m sorry to have to do this to you David’ he says as they pose. ‘But I work in the building industry and nobody believes I’m doing a film with David Wenham. I got time off to do this scene the other day. But when I said I had to come back and do it again because there was a hair in the gate, no-one knew what I was talking about. So this will prove I’m actually doing a film’. After shooting the studio parts of the roof scenes at Murray’s house, we go outside and shoot Angelo Agnelli taking a call from Murray in the company of a young bit part actor called Steve Bracks who moonlights as the Victorian State Premier.
On day 19 we shoot the enormous accident sequence. We start at dusk. We have agreed to get certain parts of the job done by certain times, so as not to inconvenience nearby horse stables, residents and local businesses, so the logistics are somewhat character-building. We have tall water towers and tankers for simulating the rain, we have two yellow Renaults, both expendable, a massive crane to drop one of them into the water, a team of police divers to go down and reattach the car so it can be pulled back out again; we have two cameras, lights on both sides of the river, we have the art department dressing ramps and bits of ground and cars. And we have Chris’s dog ‘Ethel’ who will feature as the stray dog who sticks with Murray through the rest of the film.
We drop the car in the water. Great. Move on. Our guide is still the drawing Chris did in the office. Laszlo works out how best to shoot these sequences and all night we shoot the various parts of the accident. It is nearly dawn and Chris is talking Ethel toward the car as David tiptoes along in clothes dripping from the river. Ethel walks gently and cautiously, listening to Chris but completely in sympathy with Murray as if taking her cue from David. When they get to the car and the sense of danger has lifted, Ethel jumps in and sits in the offside driver’s seat. The car drives off. Perfect. The big impossible night-shoot is all done and we’ve got several extra shots which weren’t in the schedule. This is a remarkable outfit.
Monday. I go into the editing room where I sit with Wayne Hyett, who has been joining the footage up day by day as we’ve been shooting and already has an assembly which currently runs 103 minutes. We’ll need to take about 10 minutes out of it and we have a couple of problems but they’re addressable. When Murray swims to shore and scrambles up the bank to safety after his car accident for example, we need to shorten the sequence slightly and this is hard to do because there’s nothing else we can cut to. We can’t cut from David coming up in the middle of the water to David reaching the shore. We can’t cut from David getting out of the water to David at the top of the bank. We need a couple of extra shots of Ethel to give ourselves something to alter the pace with, and we’re still waiting on the computer miracle whereby the roof comes off the house. The shots we need after shooting officially finishes are called ‘pickups.’ These are scheduled and shot. Ethel looks great in the new shots and we can redesign that section of the film.
We meet with the post-production sound team and with Jeremy Smith, who will write the score. Jeremy was previously a Hunter and Collector and has already begun beavering away at Murray music in the basement of his house in Fitzroy.
Wayne and I begin to whittle. The odd scene disappears altogether. Sometimes we don’t need the beginning of a scene. Sometimes we can get out a bit earlier at the end. We try some things, find they don’t work and have to put humpty dumpty together again. We get the duration down to about 94 minutes and we show it to a few people and listen carefully to what they say. We also show it to the investors, to Channel 7 and Southern Star, to the Film Finance Corporation and to Film Victoria. Wayne starts taking out the temporary music he has been using as a guide, and putting Jeremy’s music in. The post-production schedule is being run by Colleen Milling, who should be running Telstra. The service is excellent, the technical backup is immediate and the customer is always right. The computerised removal of Murray’s roof works brilliantly, Jeremy gets his final music cues done and suddenly we’re in a sound suite mixing the final picture.
Sunday April 18. We have hired one of the cinemas in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Federation Square and have invited the cast and crew to a screening. The screening turns into a very satisfactory afternoon in fine company.
Sunday June 30. Stiff goes to air and wins the ratings.